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EDITORIAL: Planning Board Needs to Take Lead in Resolving Accessory Lots Problem in Lost Lake

Two weeks ago the Groton Herald published a front-page story about the predicament of John Reilly and Heather Rhodes, two Lost Lake residents caught in a hall-of-mirrors enforcement of our bylaws, zoning bylaws that don’t pass the basic test of commonsense or civic decency. The Herald story explains that John and Heather can’t park on their own deeded accessory lot because an anonymous complaint forced zoning enforcement officer Ed Cataldo to order them off their own land.  

   The existence and need for accessory lots in Lost Lake is due to haphazard development of the area, long before the advent of modern zoning. Smaller dwellings, built as vacation cottages to the lot-line, now require additional land for year-round living including space for parking and storage of lawn-care equipment or snowplows.

   By definition, such accessory lots are near but not contiguous to a homeowner’s property and are deeded with the ‘parent’ property. Bylaw-allowed uses of accessory lots are quite restrictive, while in practice they are widely used for many purposes. The quandary is that the law does not reflect the reality of day-to-day need and customary use of these lots. 

   In fairness to the Planning Board and the zoning bylaw, accessory lots are a problem in many communities. Accessory lots are a common thorn in many Massachusetts towns and other parts of New England with informal, haphazard vacation-type development in lake areas.

    It is common practice to use accessory lots for ‘storage’ of materials, equipment and unregistered vehicles homeowners no longer use. In effect much of the so-called ‘storage’ on many of these accessory lots is - in reality - junk, a dumping ground by another name. The advantage of using an accessory lot for such ‘storage’ is that homeowners don’t incur any cost for disposal and don’t have to look at the stuff every day, even though it might be objectionable to a neighbor who has it in their line of sight. Over time, such lots can become eyesores, objectionable junkyards. 

   Such customary abuse of accessory lots makes Lost Lake a less pleasant place to live for all. Despite their reluctance to face the issue head on, the Planning Board should take an active role in developing a fair, flexible and reasonable way to review these lots to be sure they are reasonably well maintained, thus becoming a benefit to the community rather than a source of conflict.

   Developing a reasonable solution to this problem will take time and will not be easy. To be fair, and to gain broad acceptance, it will require hours of input from Lost Lake residents. Other towns have been able to solve this problem in an equitable manner, a manner promoting community harmony by developing a fair set of ground rules and reasonable regulation based on broad community agreement.

    The zoning enforcement officer in a nearby town suggests an outline for such a process. First, an inventory of all accessory lots would be made with these lots being registered and linked to a parent property in a registry at the Planning Board.

   Second, a special permit process would be developed for these registered accessory lots. The process would set standards for reasonable and appropriate maintenance of these lots. Once these standards are in place, each owner of an accessory lot would apply for a special permit. Such special permits would be granted to a homeowner if the lot met the basic standards of the special permit, remaining in effect as long as the same owner held the property.

   Whenever a property changed hands, the new homeowner would need to re-apply for the special permit for the accessory lot. A new special permit would be automatically granted if the lot were maintained and used per the terms and requirements of the special permit standards. If any new owner brought their lot up to required standards, they would automatically receive a renewed special permit.

   Such required renewal of these special permits would force a formal occasional review of all registered accessory lots over time. This conceptual model, similar to Title V for septic systems, has proven to be very effective and manageable.

   The proposal we suggest here is just one approach. Most important is to come up with a mechanism to solve this problem, a problem fomenting anger and discord while leaving certain parts of Lost Lake looking like a junkyard.

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